Shuck and Jive

Monday, February 28, 2011

Unprotected Texts: A Review

I have written about the Bible quite a bit on this blog. My general refrain is that we should not use the Bible as an excuse for not owning up to our own opinions. It is nice when you run across an articulate author who agrees with you (or at least you hope so!)

Jennifer Wright Knust is the author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. She is an ordained American Baptist minister and an assistant professor of religion at Boston University.

Her book reminds me of the sentence that begins John Shelby Spong's book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,

"Sex drove me to the Bible!"
Even as her presenting issue is sexuality, her book is really about how we go about reading the Bible, what we bring to it, and what we want it to say.
It is time for us to admit that we, too, are interpreters who hope to find our convictions reflected in biblical texts, and have been all along. Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can lead only to disappointment. When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies, as the material presented in this book demonstrates. p. 244
She presents a great deal of material about how the Bible approaches sex. I hadn't realized that Esther and Jezebel were far more alike than different. Both were strong women. Both wanted to hold on to their faith and to the integrity of its practice in a foreign land. Both defended their people. Both had to use their "feminine wiles to advance their goals." p. 15.

What was the difference between Jezebel and Esther? Jezebel played for the wrong team. The way to slander, dismiss, and ruin the opposing player in biblical times and in the present is to call her a slut. Then have her eaten by dogs. Sexualize your opponent. Does that sound familiar in the arguments against equality for lgbt people?

Her six chapters take you through the Bible and its cast of characters, their actions, and attitudes toward themselves and others as sexual beings. She addresses how various interpreters throughout church history have interpreted certain texts. She takes on "Christian" educators who use scare tactics and misuse the Bible to support abstinence-only education.

...passages celebrating sexual pleasure outside the bonds of marriage can be found within the Bible and, remarkably, no one dies. p. 23
She explores the Song of Songs, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, "biblical marriage", polygamy, celibacy, slaves, virgins, desire, sexual politics, sex with strangers, sex with angels, sex between gods (Yhwh and Asherah), rape, Jesus's foreskin (did she really write about that? Yes!), virgin births, menstruation, managing "the wife", and much, much more!

Fundamentalists will hate this book. She dismantles their idols, especially the one that claims that the Bible has a unified voice on matters of sexuality. However, those who will appreciate this book are those who can appreciate the Bible, its authors and their struggles:

...the Bible is not perfect, but it can still be regarded as beautiful, particularly when we do not try to force it to mean just one thing. p. 247
I will be recommending this book to college students when I speak to classrooms at ETSU. Because I am a minister who advocates for equality for LGBT people, I often get asked to speak to classes about PFLAG. I get asked:
How can a minister possibly defend homosexuality when the Bible so clearly condemns it?
I find that many students are not asking that question derisively, but honestly. I give them my honest answer. The Bible is complex and we see in it what we want to see. I invite them to read the Bible for themselves and to examine their own attitudes. This elegant book by Jennifer Wright Knust will be a companion, guide, and a breath of fresh air for those seeking a conversation with the biblical authors that is intelligent, informed, and honest.

For other reviews visit the TLC Book Tour.


  1. It is interesting that some female characters in the Bible are defamed with accusations of lax sexual morality. The name Jezebel has come to mean a loose woman. Yet there is no evidence that Jezebel was not faithful to her husband. She did have a neighbor killed so Ahab could have the neighbor's vineyard. She was a strong evangelist for her faith although she did use violent means (as did Elijah).

    The other character that is so vilified is Mary Magdalene. John says she had a bunch of demons in her and Jesus cast them out. A later pope (I think in the 6th or 7th century) said she was a prostitute in one of his sermons and she has carried that label ever since.

    Sure would be nice if one only got blamed for what one actually did.

    And BTW if you check the stories of those who were polygamists they all get into trouble of one sort or another. Check both the Abraham and Jacob cycles. I wouldn't have wanted to be present during a fight between Sarah and Hagar or be told by one wife that she had sold my sexual favors to her sister/fellow wife for the night!

  2. I'm glad you found this book to be such a great tool that you'll be recommending it during your talks! It sounds like you were the perfect reader for this one.

    Thanks for being on the book tour.

  3. Delightful subject! I'll pretend to reverse roles here, while usually pushing Bible stories as quite real despite perhaps our distorted views of what historically happened, I'll say verses like Songs of Solomon 4:11 referencing sweet lips and milk and honey under someone's tongue, well that is far from literal, I mean, there was no French kissing back then, France didn't even exist as a country yet. :)

  4. Thanks Heather for connecting me with this book. It will be helpful with the work I do!

  5. If I am reading you right: effectively, any Biblical text that proscribes a sexual behavior is a redaction or insertion of human origin for the sake of political or personal power brokering?

  6. @Bob I find that biblical characters get into trouble for a variety of reasons! Like us, I suppose.

    @Mike Yours is an illustration of the various ways of interpreting these texts.

    @Spike The title, thesis, and examples of the book I reviewed make the case that the Bible isn't as uniform in its proscriptions and/or celebrations as we might think/hope/want.